Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Relief Of An Island Easter

The social and religious rituals surrounding Greek Orthodox Easter provide a welcome relief to the constant drumbeat of depressing economic news coming out of Athens. Tempers have been fraught for months as the newspapers and television are filled with reports of yet more strikes, demonstrations, or persistent rumors of Greece about to reschedule or default on its mountain of debt.

Come Easter these fears and tensions turn to more mundane matters like the drama of fitting every living relative, household pet, cars, and piles of luggage onto the ferries out to the islands a few days before Easter. Crew members are busy helping, usually bodily lifting, ancient immobile family members up the stairs and then stuffing them into seats. Children and toys are scattered over the stairs while the hordes of smokers head for the open decks where they can relieve the tension of daily life by going through a pack of Marlboros during the two-hour trip to Andros. All of this is accompanied by furious hand gestures and a high decibel cacophony of opinions on the state of the world, the injustice of their current situation, concern about how to get the grandmother up the steps into the church without too much protesting, worries that the lamb won’t be ready, and fears that the wife forgot the all important red dye without which the Easter eggs will be a failure. This results in emptying bulging sacks of luggage all over the deck until the errant jar of dye is triumphantly found and displayed to the other passengers.

Once on the island thoughts turn to the succession of church services and meals that must be prepared according to dictates of the Orthodox version of fasting during Holy Week. It is the very clever cook indeed that can successfully navigate this narrow channel of what is acceptable and what is not. In theory, all meat, dairy products, fish – except for shell fish and squid, are forbidden during Holy Week. On Good Friday the forbidden list expands to include olive oil – but not olives. Supermarket trolleys are carefully, if somewhat surreptitiously, examined by other shoppers for signs of contraband dairy products or the odd sausage skillfully buried beneath mounds of innocent vegetables.

Those of us not involved in food preparation can take advantage of the sunny and chilly weather to explore the island’s countless ancient paths that crisscross the steep hills and green valleys. Many of these paths have become overgrown with thick gorse bushes and are all but impassable. But others have been cleared and marked by international groups of volunteers dedicated to opening up these ancient pathways. These paths and weathered steps were once the only way to get around the island, and the intricate stone walls carefully delineated ancient property rights. In some places you come across remains of terraces that were once cultivated with fruit trees and vegetables. In other places you see foundations of what were mountain shelters for the shepherds that used to follow their flocks across the craggy hills.

One of my wife’s many cousins joined me in an effort to find an alternate route up to the monastery perched high above the town. We trudged for more than an hour up a semi-cleared path between high stone walls before emerging onto a plateau covered with bright blue anemones, pink and white snapdragons, and other wild flowers that went well beyond our limited knowledge. We also stumbled upon the water source for the village at the bottom of the hill before deciding that the search for the alternate monastery path would have to be completed another day.

These paths are among the island’s hidden treasures. Away from the sparkling blue sea, white houses and tavernas beloved by travel brochures these trails let you discover new parts of the island’s rich heritage and beautiful vistas as you marvel at the effort and craftsmanship that created the stone paths and high stone walls.

Above all else, however, the days leading up to Easter are dominated by a succession of church services culminating in the midnight liturgy on Saturday. The churches and the courtyards are packed as the sounds of chanting and the whiff of incense float out to the waiting crowds. Everyone, from those in push chairs to elderly people using walkers, is holding a candle waiting to light it as the priest comes outside at midnight and pronounces Christos Anesti - Christ is Risen. Alithos – Indeed He is Risen. Bells ring out, firecrackers explode, and the crowd disperses for the next part of the ritual – a full meal celebrating the end of the fast.

This meal, featuring the traditional thick magiritsa soup made with generous helpings of lamb offal, is one of the main parts of the Easter celebrations. Treasured by many, this particular dish remains a taste yet to be acquired by others. However, housewives spend much of Saturday making their magiritsa and good manners dictate that you at least taste it before gently putting it aside. If you’re lucky the person next to you loves the stuff and will gladly finish yours before the hostess notices how quickly you have moved on to the meat dishes.

It’s about 2 am as you slowly make your way back up the agora wondering just how your arteries are going to cope with mainlining all this cholesterol. A couple of Alka Selzers later you fall asleep only to be woken around 9 am by the sounds and smells of people getting ready for the main event – whole lambs that are slowly roasting on a spit. In addition to the lamb many cooks will include a goat and the inevitable kokoretsi¬ – bits of lamb or goat intestines put onto a skewer and slowly roasted. While the uninitiated might run the other way, most consider kokoretsi the highlight of the weekend and will savor it with the same satisfaction as a wine connoisseur tasting a rare bottle of Haut Brion.

The ferry trip back is noticeably quieter as people either sleep off the weekend excesses or worry about what faces them on the mainland. Others, buoyed by the celebrations and enduring message of Easter, recall that Greece has been through very hard times before and has always managed – somehow – to pull through.

1 comment:

Paula said...

I very much enjoyed reading your post about Greek Easter on Andros!

My maternal grandparents were Croatian and cooking lamb on the spit was one of their traditions as well. It's got to be one of the most delicious things on earth! However, magiritsa soup was not on the menu, and I'm afraid we'll have to avoid sitting next to each other if we find ourselves together at an Easter dinner. ;)

Your description of venturing the paths in the Andros countryside brought back memories of many years ago - before Dimitri and I had children - when we parked a motorbike at the nearest roadside to Achla beach, and climbed down the mountain along the overgrown paths to the beach. This was before there was a road to the beach of course. It was very interesting as you described, and I remember trying to find a pathway that would take us where we wanted to go. I was amazed at the distances - places that didn't look very far away, took quite a long time to reach. Since it was the middle of the summer, we were hot, tired, and scratched from the brush, when we finally arrived at the bottom, where there is a farm, with the stream running through it to the sea and our destination. The contrast of the shady, cool path along the stream was a welcome change to the sun-exposed mountainous trails we had just left behind. Of course, we then had to trek back up after our swim! It was a fun adventure for a *young* energetic couple, but needless to say, we never tried it again! :)